Thursday, November 12, 2009

Changing our Minds

I am sure that you wish you could have been with us last weekend when we had the opportunity to "Walk the Walk" here in Athens, Ohio in support of mental health.  The weather was beautiful, low 70's, and the walk took us through downtown Athens and out to the Ridges.  From the Ridges we followed the nature trail that has been developed by area volunteers through the beautiful grounds of the Ridges property.

The Ridges was originally built to be a state of the art hospital for the mentally ill.  It was built in 1874 and was one of many mental health institutes that were built after the Civil War.  There were tons of soldiers who cam home from the war suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and the health community responded by building asylums across the country in the style of Dr. Kirkbride who believed that living in a beautiful setting would help the mentally ill recover.

The building of the Ridges took six years to complete and the grounds occupied more than a 1000 acres.  The grounds were developed and landscaped as well, and the Ridges became a place where the citizens of Athens could enjoy the park like setting. 
The buildings were constructed of bricks that were made from local materials and were fired on-site.  Herman Haerlin, a student of Frederick Law Olmstead (the designer of Central Park), was responsible for the design of the hospital and its grounds. By the early 1900's, orchards and farmland were established at the Ridges, including a dairy barn.  These were tended to by hospital residents and employees.
 It became an important institution in Athens as the asylum began to house more and more patients.  Many of the area were able to supply the Ridges with produce and goods.  It became the center for nursing students in training and many of the students lived at the Ridges.  There were picnics and dances, boating and painting with familes attending.  There were also plays that were performed; church services were held.  It was a golden era for the care of the country's mental ill because of the progressive european theories of care that were being followed. Because of this however, it also became a mecca for the elderly who could no longer be cared for by their families.  Many were left at the Ridges, as were unruly teens and the homeless.  In the early 1900's the patient count jumped from the original 200 to 2000, way over the 544 the facility was designed for.  The quality of care diminshed as systems were stretched beyond their capacities.  The story repeats itself in mental health care.  We swing from one side to the other.  Ohio, as recently as 2 years ago, had one of the better systems for treating mental health in the United States. Today, Ohio's mental health stigma, has affected the quality of care and we are back to limited help and a bureaucracy of red tape to get it.  Patients are left without the care that improves their situation and families suffer without an understanding of the complexities of these illnesses. One out of every 4 people in the United States are affected by these illnesses.  Would this be qualified as a pandemic?  Would it get the media cover to turn the direction of treatment priorities?
Today, we see people on the streets who are extremely ill, without medication, without care.  These people end up in our jails and worse.  We end up paying for bigger jails to be built, with people turning to addictive substances to relieve their symptoms, and more social issues than we can handle.  These people become anonymous, the wallpaper of society.  Even at the Ridges the cemeteries are filled with graves that have stones that bear only numbers, no names.

It's just a physical disease.  It's not uncommon; it's not untreatable.

I wonder, with all of the unmarked graves at the Ridges, if I have an ancestor who suffered after the Civil War and is buried somewhere across the country in a numbered grave like these.
The Athens NAMI (National Alliance for Mental Illness) has assisted some families in reconnecting with their lost family members.  I thought about the Civil War soldier who finally received the colors at his graveside this summer as we walked on the borders of these graveyards set high up on the hills overlooking Athens to complete "Walk the Walk".  It is a quiet and peaceful place, not scary and not haunted, as some would like others to believe because "crazy" people are buried there.  It has a lovely pond, a memorial plaque for a young man whose family lost him to his illness, stone resting "benches" along the winding hike through the trees, bridges, walkways and lots of peace.

And, don't we all want a little bit more of that in our lives?

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